For the Wear Valley Mercury (Oct 29)
Otterly brilliant: Volunteers install an otter holt
By Ryan Pilot
A WEAR Valley group has bagged an award for transforming their nature reserve into a haven for wildlife and visitors.
Hedleyhope Community Association was given the Green Heroes Northern Community Group of the Year award for regenerating the Hedleyhill Colliery Wood and Meadow.
The hardworking group regimented a traditional woodland management programme to whip it into shape and win the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers' prize.
Volunteers built bridges, created footpaths and installed bird boxes, bat boxes and otter holts and a variety of species have blossomed in the reserve's meadows.
Chair of the Environment Group Clare Ross said: "It's a fantastic achievement for the members who have worked so hard to improve this land for people and wildlife."
The association leased the 13 hectare plot in 2005 with a grant from the Big Lottery Fund. It is built on the site of two collieries, which makes the soil nutrient-poor.
But conditions have proven perfect for the brightly coloured waxcap mushroom - and many varieties have popped up in the reserve's meadows this year.
The meadows provide the rare environment required to create the "waxcap grasslands" that the funghi require - thanks to the sheep that graze there during winter.
Waxy Wonder: A waxcap mushroom
The association is the only community group in the North East receiving grants from the Forestry Commission, who provided 50 bird boxes. They are about to provide a grant for the nurturing of at-risk birds like the Willow Tit and the Spotted Fly Catcher.
The small group have improved the reserve for people as well as wildlife, providing guided walks and hosting children's groups. Artistic carved benches are currently being added and paths are maintained to the highest quality.
Mrs Ross said: "It has improved the biodiversity in the meadow, but we have also improved it for people."
Tree-mendous effort: Youngsters plant a sapling
Remarkably, the reserve's woodland grows flowers usually found in ancient woodland - such as blue bell and dog's mercury - despite being felled and naturally regenerated years ago.
The Hedleyhopers are hoping for more volunteers as groupds like theirs face hardship as grants dry up following Government budget cuts.
Urging others to get involved Ms Ross said: "It's good for your mental health - you can meet new people, learn new skills and do something positive to help the environment and wildlife."
Already a Local Wildlife Site, Durham County Council have promised to dedicate the land as aLocal Nature Reserve - to recognise its educational services - but the group are still waiting for the confirmation that will secure its future.